Debate on Is Western Haiku a Second Rate Art?

VOLUME 1: ISSUE 1
MAY 2001

WHC Academia

Summary of the debate January-March 2001
Denis Garrison
Maryland, US


WHCacademia Debate Topic 1:  
“Is Western Haiku A Second-rate Art?”

There were over 300 postings to the WHCacademia list during January through March 2001.  We have extracted several, along the main lines of discussion relevant to the debate topic, in order to summarize the debate.  Susumu Takiguchi, Managing Editor of the World Haiku Review and Chairman of The World Haiku Club, opened the debate on January 2, 2001 and set the topic, “Is Western Haiku A Second-rate Art?”  A few excerpts follow:


“Since its early history haiku has been subjected to fierce challenges or attacks from time to time. Every time major challenges were made to haiku, there appeared great reformers who successfully responded to these challenges and not only rescued haiku from further deterioration but actually elevated the genre to a higher position. Basho, Buson, Shiki and Kyoshi are major names among such reformers.

“Soon after the end of the last war, a major challenge was made in Japan against haiku, putting the haiku world into turmoil and confusion. … This may be a good starting point for our discussion in the WHC Debating Chamber …  The said challenge came from a Japanese scholar called Takeo Kuwabara, and is known as “Daini Geijutsu Ron” ([haiku] as a second-rate art). I shall briefly introduce what it is about and its historical context. It is not our intention to discuss Kuwabara himself here. My belief is that we need Kuwabara type of questioning applied to the contemporary haiku. For the sake of focused argument, let us confine ourselves to the Western haiku since the end of the last war, as we know it (do we?) Hence, the theme of our first discussion in WHCacademia is, ‘Is Western Haiku A Second rate Art?’ … [a brief discussion of Kuwabara’s article followed here] …  The history of haiku is a repetition of ups and downs of the genre. When the downs were of serious nature then they were followed by some fierce criticism against haiku and a reform movement. About half a century before Kuwabara, Masaoka Shiki was engaged in such an attack and reform. At the turn of the century and millennium, we are once again faced with the situation where such criticism and reform are called for. The World Haiku Festival 2000 is an attempt at responding to such a call. Like Descartes doubting everything, we take the same method as his discourse and in principle challenge all Western conventions of haiku, including highly well established rules and practices.”   Susumu Takiguchi

For the first few weeks, most discussion was in reaction to the Kuwabara article. A few representative comments in that line follow:

Hortensia Anderson, on Jan. 4, 2001, wrote: “I would like to briefly address the points presented below re: Kuwabara

“Haiku was disqualified by Kuwabara as a proper art because (a) it was no more than a  pastime enjoyed by a clique of devotees who are prone to create a closed and special world of their own (don’t we know similar things happening in the West?), (b) it was difficult to distinguish professional haijin and amateurs from their works, (c ) it was in real terms very difficult by a single haiku poem to determine the quality of a haijin, (d) such a short poem as the 17 syllable haiku could hardly be a vessel to contain the complicated thoughts, sensibility and serious issues of modern society, (e) the Japanese haiku world and its haijin still maintain a feudalistic isolationist attitude, (f) the position and reputation of a haijin is not determined by the quality of the haiku he/she writes but by other factors such as his/her position in the society, how many followers he/she boasts of, the number of copies of his/her magazine, how strong his/her faction is etc.  individualism is lacking or scarce in these haijin (h) it would be best for the Japanese to give up haiku for now.

a  The charge that an art form is really just an excuse for a clique and has no value beyond the devotees has been levelled at just about all art forms and movements.

b  Many visitors to the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, USA can be heard exclaiming how did THIS get into the exhibit? my 2 year old niece does better work! Is this a reflection of the work or the viewer?

c  I don’t see the correlation between requiring a body of work to determine calibre and whether or not an art form is first-rate. This does however, raise an interesting issue if we only see the very best that an artist produces, will we assume that artist to be “better” than the artist whose every scrap of work is known? Or the artist whose masterpieces have never been revealed?

While a novel may be more representative (you can be a novelist with one novel but being a poet with one poem, especially a brief one,  is a doubtful proposition), remember, that as late as the 19th century, novels were not considered art and were held to be detrimental if overly indulged in by proper young ladies.

d  By this reasoning, a sociology dissertation is high art! I would argue that it is precisely the distillation of such a huge experience (aha!) into such a compact form that unpacks itself and reproduces the experience in the reader which marks haiku as a first-rate art.

f  We have a saying in English: It’s not what you know but who you know. The charge that an artist is shamelessly self-aggrandising and self-promoting is levelled against individuals and groups in every art. It evokes a vexing issue in my mind which is: does real art manifest itself through the lens of time? Does the chaff disintegrate with time, leaving the pure wheat? Or does surviving through history confer a legitimacy on an art? Then, does good public relations equate with art? Finally, don’t all these reasons against haiku being a first-rate art have nothing to do with how the work affects us? transforms us? or is that just the “response” school of criticism? Before we can judge the degree of artiness, I think we must agree on a working definition of art.”

Susumu Takiguchi responded that, “In the end, we might have to open the BIG cans of worms and ask what is art? Before we can judge the degree of artiness, I think we must agree on a working definition of art. It may be partly because we have not gone that far that haiku is often criticised as having never really found ‘citizenship’ as serious literature. This is a serious contention and needs to be seriously addressed. However, it is probably not within the scope of this particular debate.”

Nevertheless, the list members did spend considerable effort in attempting a definition of art, as we shall see. 

Carmen Sterba broadened the discussion with her remarks: “… I see a need for journals that focus on essays gathered from various haiku publications reviewing chapbooks and books. What is common in the rest of the world of literature, is necessary for haiku. Perhaps, that is something that the World Haiku Club could begin to produce. Not a journal to raise up its own group’s haiku, or just including a selection of essays that were sent to that particular journal; but a journal dedicated to the best or most controversial essays from journals all over the world.”

Gary Barnes both brought the topic to a finer point and questioned its validity with his following posting:

“One of the real questions being discussed here, in my opinion, is not “Is Haiku A Second-rate Art?,” but whether haiku as currently being written in the Western style or Western world is second-rate art.

“I would say no. There may be a lot of second rate haiku being written by  people who are in positions to influence others, but there are also many first class poets out there, in the Western world, experimenting with different styles of expression and writing very fine haiku.

“The second idea were to be considering is this statement, by Susumu …, At the turn of the century and millennium, we are once again faced with the situation where such criticism and reform are called for.

“It never hurts to look at the state of the art, but is the status quo in Western haiku so firmly entrenched that it’s time for a major reform movement? Considering the history of Western haiku, and the changes in recent years, I doubt it. With no disrespect to either, I’d say we have come a long way since Blythe or Harold Stewart defined the way haiku was to be written, thereby defining the haiku way. There will always be those who insist that the old way was best, or that their way is the only way. One day they will be looked back on as quaint. Finally, on this statement, even in the days of Basho, Shiki, et al, there were several schools working at the same time. In reading the history of Basho’s reform, it is my understanding that the teacher he started with was not considered to be in the mainstream.

“Taking a few editorial liberties with Kuwabara’s essay, we come up with the other subject really being discussed here.

(e) the Western haiku world and its poets have calcified attitudes and ideas, (f) the position and reputation of a Western haiku poet is not determined by the quality of the haiku he/she writes but by other factors such as his/her position in the society, how many followers he/she boasts of, the number of copies of his/her magazine, how strong his/her faction is etc. (g) individualism is lacking or scarce in these poets and their followers  (h) it would be best for Westerners to give up haiku for now.

“… The complaints above, whether in my edited version, or in the context of Kuwabara’s essay, have always been the complaints heard from poets unable to break into the inner circle. One day, however, some of the young poets will become part of the old guard, and they will deny the abilities of those upstarts knocking on the door, to protect their own inner circle. So why are we challenging conventions that are constantly changing?”

Denis Garrison asked: “What is a working definition of art applicable to haiku?  …  perhaps a few initial assertions may be made from which a working definition of the art of haiku could develop.”

Following are Garrison’s five opening assertions, followed by comments on each by John Carley and Garrison’s responses.

          Garrison:  “1. Beauty and truth (ultimately, the same thing) are the desired products of art.  This does not rule out the difficult subject matters, emptiness, death, loss, etc., since the full spectra of human experience and of natural reality include the “bad” as well as the “good”. Banality, much less ugliness, ought not to be the products of art these may be found all around one, anywhere, any day, any place, produced by anybody.  Arbitrary limitations on the subject matter of the products are more in the nature of conventions (susceptible to change) than in the nature of definitional necessities.

Carley: “No, sorry, I can’t agree with that. Beauty and Truth are abstracts whose definition vary over cultural space and time. Art is manifest in all cultures at all times; it is therefore a human constant like the urge to eat, fight, reproduce etc. . . .”

Garrison: “I stipulate your assertions are correct; I suggest that they are not contradictory to mine.  I did not say (or mean) that MY perceptions of beauty and truth are the desired products of art. I agree that the definition of beauty and truth is subjective within the aesthetic context and vary through the full spectrum of human individuality.”

Garrison:  “2. Art is the result of talented and trained effort. The perception of beauty and truth by the (in the case of poetry) reader does not, by itself, make a writing art.  A declarative sentence in a newspaper article may resonate deeply for some individual, provide an epiphany and perhaps the perception of beauty  that does not make it a poem. This was the issue with “found art,” where the artistry, against traditional expectations, was not in fabrication of the art, but was in discovering it and presenting it in such a manner that others could share in the original surprise of discovery.  In poetry, artistry is in the skilled selection and arrangement of words; great artistry involves the addition of talent and content (something worth saying).”

Carley: “Maybe. Or is that craft? What about the child prodigies, the autistic savants, me (!) when (very occasionally) a good poem springs fully formed into my mind.”

Garrison: “As I said in my earlier post, ‘In poetry, artistry is in the skilled selection and arrangement of words; great artistry involves the addition of talent and content (something worth saying).’  I think that an artist is first a craftsman and then, creative genius can make him/her a real artist.  As to your having a poem “spring fully formed” into your mind, I think you do yourself a disservice; you are discounting your subconscious creative efforts, which necessarily build upon your learned skills.  As to the productions of child prodigies and autistic savants, we are entering upon the subject of extraordinary talents which, while fascinating, are beyond the practical bounds of the discussion at hand; suffice it to say that I do not deny that such persons may be artists, even great artists.  One thought that may be relevant, however: The fact that an individual masters a craft in an incredibly brief time, even seemingly overnight, does not mean that the individual has not learned the craft, rather, it only means that s/he has not suffered learning it laboriously as most of us would.”

Garrison:  “3. The art of poetry involves successful communication that is not didactic, rather, is concrete. The reader must be induced to have the insight, vision, etc., that the poet wishes to communicate (albeit that, in our widely varying personal and cultural contexts, readers may have quite different and unexpected insights/visions than the poet intended or could even imagine).  Describing the insight, vision, etc., is not poetry.”

Carley: “Yes, didacticism is for the lecture theatre, or the DVD player manual. ‘Show don’t tell’ is the oldest advice of all. It is perhaps useful to try and frame this part of the argument in terms that are applicable to other art forms too.”

Garrison: “I think we are in agreement here. Yes?”

Garrison:  “4. At least with respect to poetry in English, a poem has some form, in contradistinction to prose. In this respect, the general western preference for the three-line haiku is to be expected.  The three-line convention is not intrinsically necessary, but some convention is.  Exploration of the fundamentals of English verse and the iambic voice of English verse will eventually lead to a convention designed for English haiku, not one that is an artefact of the seminal art in another language.”

Carley: “Don’t tell a novelist that (not if you want her/him to buy you a drink) – prose has form too, and neither poetry nor prose have much of a track record as text-based art forms in English poetry being mainly an oral tradition and prose (as creative writing) being recent. The distinction between poetry and prose is a matter of convention really (contrast: oral poetry as being sound waves, text poetry as being light). My own distinction is that poetry tends to convey meaning at single word level whereas prose operates at whole sentence level.”

Garrison: “I am undone by my poor syntax.  I did not mean to suggest that prose has no form (I agree that is a ridiculous idea).  I meant that the form of poetry is necessarily different from the form of prose (otherwise the distinction is an absurdity).  While I accept (and write) poetry in grammatical sentence(s), that poetry must be in verse of some description, or it is simply prose.  Your point about the oral tradition of poetry is right on target.  My personal opinion is that poetry must have an element of music in it; it must appeal to the ear as much as to the mind.  This is a particular hobbyhorse of mine; I would like to see more haiku in English which are beautiful to hear as well as to read.”

Garrison:  “5. Each art has aesthetic and technical criteria.  Haiku is an art when the poetry produced can be measured and evaluated by such criteria.  Without performance measures, haiku writing can become, like any other such endeavour, a mutual admiration society leading to the well-known cliques that are impenetrable private clubs. However, mere technical accomplishment is never the ultimate criterion for any art, so slavish adherence to technical guidelines is also a dead end. This is where paradox enters the equation C the need to know all the rules and master them, and then to write despite the rules. Creative innovation will always come into conflict with doctrinaire technical orthodoxies.  In the long run, beauty and truth trump the rules.”

Carley: “The urge towards codification and classification would appear to be a human constant too, and can be every bit as dangerous as the nihilism it counterpoises. Language can be a tool for exclusion just as much as for expression, and the same is true of ‘knowledge’. Whilst we must have sufficient shared concepts to allow us to communicate (on this level) I think the greatest mistake we can make in aesthetics, or anything else, is to mistake orthodoxy for ‘truth’.”

Garrison:  “Aren’t we in agreement here?  Let me reiterate from my first post: However, mere technical accomplishment is never the ultimate criterion for any art, so slavish adherence to technical guidelines is also a dead end. This is where paradox enters the equation — the need to know all the rules and master them, and then to write despite the rules. Creative innovation will always come into conflict with doctrinaire technical orthodoxies. In the long run, beauty and truth trump the rules.”

          John Carley wrapped up this dialogue as follows: “Thanks, Denis, for your considered reply. We do indeed concur on many points though I think we still differ fundamentally on your first assertion. Be that as it may, I think the conclusion of your second series of comments is as elegant a summation as I have read. … Denis wrote (in conclusion): This is where paradox enters the equation: the need to know all the rules and master them, and then to write despite the rules.”

Susumu Takiguchi suggested that Garrison’s summary of the salient points of the definition of art ” … can be used so productively in discussing the relevance of Western haiku in terms of its worth as a form of art. Each point is worth pursuing by putting Western haiku against it. The World Haiku Festival 2000, whose highlight was the six-day London – Oxford Conference last August, has as its main theme ‘Challenging Conventions’ and is trying to reassess contemporary haiku against all sorts of criteria. All [these] points can be brought in to challenge Western haiku from the point of view of the question of art.”

Bob Talbot’s following comments are representative of many postings which took issue with the idea that a definition of art is either feasible or desirable:  “Trying to define what is art and what is mere artisan:  now there is a fruitless exercise.  Not fruitless in the sense that the act of attempting to define it is not worthwhile but in that the target of the search is too ephemeral to ever be constrained by mere categorisation for long. … Once you do anything *TO* a formula, be that painting, haiku, photography it almost certainly is not real art.  At best it is representationalism.  Haiku is not haiku merely because it is 5:7:5. Neither is it art merely because it is not!!! Art can so easily exist within, even if at the boundaries of, a discipline.”

The late, great, John Crook, on  January 16th, had this to say:  “A wonderfully clear response in respect of haiku in the context of art, Denis.  When I looked at the question my initial thoughts were — ‘What is art?’ ‘What is 2nd class art?’  ‘What is first class art?’  Then: ‘What is haiku?’  ‘Who are the judges of haiku as art?’ Questions kept spinning out.

“The original statement was made in Japan when haiku was in an apparent state of decline.  Now in the West we are asking the question in a completely different context, in a society that values personal freedom to pursue one’s own ideas, where value is accorded to uniqueness of thought and product, and where we have different bands of what might be called art (high art, modern art, art as therapy, hobby art, etc).  Also, if volume of participants is any kind of criterion, then haiku has probably never been more popular outside of Japan.  The problem is the varied nature of that work.

“In the ‘Art’ world, big exhibitions of the ‘Masters’ regularly draw large crowds who don’t necessarily realize the complex symbolism in the use of colour (for particular robes for example), certain artefacts, or juxtapositions of picture elements, and yet they go away uplifted.  The more we know about schools of art, the relationship between pupil & master, between patron and artist and the historical context, then the greater is likely to be our appreciation of a particular piece or artist.  At the other end of the scale, much of ‘Post-modern’ art is immediately confusing to many, and there isn’t even the apparent skill in the handling of colour or the medium to admire.  This is where questions of uniqueness and ownership of art are played out — where even a record of someone’s love-life can become art partly because the artist decrees it and partly because the gallery system and sponsors (and, it has to be said — the media) give it space  and oxygen to breathe.  Then again there are many art groups and individuals of varying quality (for example in water colour or oils), varying from professional organizations right down to the occasional hobbyist.

“If we look carefully it is possible to discern parallels with all of these approaches with those in haiku — we have Traditional haiku, Contemporary haiku, Avant garde haiku, and a varied range from Scifi-ku, Spamku to something which probably equates to the work of the keen hobbyist.

“Current art respects and encourages individuality and fresh perspectives on the world, and this sets up the primary tension for evaluating haiku, since there are many advocates of haiku who are fighting hard to maintain a view which attaches little or no value to individuality and ‘being different’. Many writers of haiku follow a way of life of which haiku is a part — it becomes something more important than a medium for transmission of images and emotions, more a way of life in itself — a means of understanding the world and one’s place in the world, and the interdependence and interrelationships between all things, following the learning structure and form of many Japanese ‘ways’.

“By far the majority of writers seem to occupy the ‘middle ground’. They have a certain respect for tradition, but are willing to look afresh at subject matter and form.

“It is likely that those Japanese and other haijin who are renown for extremely way-out approaches, and are well known for their avant garde ideas, would be the first to be labelled ‘artists’ using current art definitions.  It is easy enough to pick out the journals which embrace this work.

“In the end, to make some kind of judgement about art and haiku we can only look at collections of work. That means: dedicated magazines, professional journals, anthologies of modern work, on-line magazines, internet mailing lists, etc.  It is clear that such work, when examined carefully, is extremely varied, and conforms to very little in the way of agreed rules — not Zen, not emotion free, not following a rigid structure — despite there being strong and vocal support for these (and other) approaches.  The product seems as varied in its own way as what passes for contemporary 2D, 3D, video, or internet art.

“I don’t think I have uncovered much in the way of an answer here, perhaps only more questions.  What I DO feel is a warm optimism about haiku — about people who are sincerely, in their own way, struggling to get the right form of words to convey, briefly, something of their experience.  Hopefully debates like this will enable us to look at the fine threads which join us each to the other …

“Maybe, for me, the best way of dealing with it is to answer individually.  So… I think writing haiku is an art.   For me it is a way of learning about the world, about the interrelatedness of things, about my own relationship with the world, with other people in it and about universal aspects of the things we do and respond to. I then make use of my vocabulary and understanding of language and developing understanding of formal aspects to try my best to share those sensations with others.”  John Crook

Denis Garrison responded with his own personal view:  “It occurs to me that I launched right into discussing a working definition of ‘art’ applicable to haiku and failed to answer the question posed as the topic for discussion: ‘Is Western Haiku A Second-rate Art?’  My short answer is ‘No’ and it is unequivocal and positive.  For me, Gerard Manley Hopkins and W. H. Auden are exemplars of the greatest artistry in English verse and, as deeply moved by their exquisite poetry as I may be, I am no less moved by the crystalline beauty of haiku.  Although James Joyce is an exemplar of profound artistry of the written word, there are many haiku written with no less care given to every word, to the relation of each word to every other, with no less complexity of resonance and connotation, with no less freight of cultural transmission.  While the great truths of human nature are enunciated by Shakespeare in his plays and sonnets, they pierce my heart no more deeply or truly than do those that I discover in haiku, and Shakespeare’s insights are often far more inaccessible in his prolixity than in the perfect distillation of haiku.  Yes, Theodore Dreiser’s prose can move me to tears, but not with the immediacy of haiku, wherein the onset of sorrow or pain has that same suddenness of realization that one experiences in the real tragedies of life.  And, as for anyone who retorts that haiku is so short that it has not the merit of these longer forms, I would recommend that they seek out and study the little Easter eggs of Faberge, so they can realize the error of that idea.”

Marlene Egger asked the rhetorical question: “Is haiku in English art? The haiku moment seems consistent with the heightened attention described by [Jane] Hirshfield, as well as the identification of an experience, an ‘aha’! common to as many people as possible, but perhaps not previously identified so clearly. Through it, the reader has a greater understanding of our common humanity, or, as parts of nature, our inter-related existence. How many of us, who put our attention on a natural scene, felt inexplicably that nature was looking back?

“There is a considerable craft-sense to writing haiku in English at this point in history. This beginner began to study haiku over a year ago, thinking that she would master the craft in three months and go on to something else. Its simple complexity is deceiving and also alluring. Recognizing that haiku finds its source in comic verse, perhaps even tavern entertainment, rather than the zen overlay which is so fashionable in the west, haiku in English touches one’s being in a considerably different way than, say, limerick.

“Although a haiku is concrete, part of its challenge, and perhaps a measure of its quality, is how much it conveys in its spare form. When one accepts the discipline of conveying conventional reality with concrete images, not abstract ideas, one grapples with the processes of understanding, communication and valuation themselves. One wrestles with what is ‘really’ real or worthy to convey. One conveys, with restraint and understatement, a gestalt of a “sketch from nature”, a human foible, quiet meditative loneliness, high spirit in simple surroundings … the device of concrete imagery approaches these complex ideas circuitously indeed! Haiku requires the poet to create minute, but potent gestalts, without recourse to these shortcuts we call ideas, gestalt being arguably our ‘most basic mental strategy.’ …  Is English haiku second-rate art? Does it fail to be excellent, is it limited in its scope, does it fall short of plumbing the human heart? Others have noted the crystalline quality of excellent haiku in English, and a form which includes death-poems can hardly be described as shallow. Renku and innovative sequenced haiku provide a capacity for the genre to grow. In its focus on commonalities, haiku is perhaps not an elite art, but it is a mistake to confuse accessibility to the few with excellence.”

Paul Conneally challenged the attempt to define art: “This question: ‘What is Art?‘ Why this is!  (it is because I say it is) (this is not a joke)”

Denis Garrison replied that “Conneally’s posting raises a fundamental question of definition: ‘Whose definition counts?’ ‘Whose definition is “definitive’?  After all, if we are considering whether western haiku meet the definition of ‘first-rate haiku’ or ‘second-rate haiku’, we must be mindful that all established definitions are reflections of existing consensus about meaning. …  But, without a popular consensus, how do we arrive at a definition?  As Paul pointed out above, a fundamental question is: Whose definition counts?  He says it is his definition that counts — that surely is one legitimate answer. … Truly innovative art begins as ‘art’ in only the personal definition of the artist; if it is ‘successful’ in popular terms, consensus builds around the artist’s definition, and, eventually, a popular consensus confers the name ‘art’ on the new product. But, I do not think western haiku is at such an incipient stage presently. The underlying art form is ancient; there is a plethora of scholarship from the last half of the twentieth century about western haiku; there is a widespread appreciation of western haiku by the general public (indeed, it is arguably one of the most popular poetic forms in a post-modern society which is, overall, rather apathetic about poetry).  … To find an answer to the question ‘Whose definition counts?’, we probably need to consider aesthetic politics.  A longstanding popular idea is that the ‘experts’ in any field are those whose definitions count. The idea has some merits on the theoretical level, but it cannot be operationalised successfully because there is always (yes, always!) politics in any artistic field and that means factions, which means opposing opinions, which means no consensus, which means no definitional confidence. … If a definition cannot be discovered, it must be made. Defining western haiku, then, involves making policy. Some authority, whether acclaimed or self-appointed or in voluntary partnership, must decide (1) to define western haiku and (2) what that definition shall be, and then must implement that definition through education, outreach, and other means of being an agent of change. … I do have a personal view.  I think that, ultimately, English speaking poets must control/define/evaluate English haiku, and that French speaking poets must do the same with French haiku, and so forth.  While I have a long personal history in Japan and a genuine appreciation for Japanese culture, I think every linguistic group must be the ultimate arbiters of art in their own language.  I do not say so for any phyletistic or chauvinistic reasons, but for the same reason that those who do not speak Japanese will never fully appreciate original Japanese haiku  because the common cultural context is not there.  Perhaps in an polyglot future, such linguistic separations may be eliminated, but today we are indeed insular to one degree or another. … Of course, the default definitional authority is the anarchical option.  We who write western haiku can define our art for ourselves and leave it to posterity to judge our fruits.  This option certainly has many merits and, in the midst of corporate indecision, it holds the field today and until convincingly replaced.”

Daniel Gallimore replied that … “I would describe an expert as someone  who knows enough about their subject to avoid the avoid the obvious pitfalls — both errors of judgement and technical errors — and who will attract criticism from people who question their ‘politics’ rather than authority. A haiku expert does not necessarily have to be a good poet but will have to be a good reader and to have read enough different haiku to have an idea of what is good and what is bad. … As for the question of the artistic status of haiku, I believe that what is meant by people who call haiku ‘a second-rate art’ is that haiku is not seen to engage effectively with the big questions of our time, in other words that it is somewhere behind some imagined frontier of technical ingenuity and philosophical inquiry. … At least two points can be made here. One is to draw an analogy with the fine arts where we know that abstract art and video and installation art are at the vanguard, and yet it is not unknown for quite traditional figurative painters such as Elizabeth Blackadder (herself someone with a deep interest in Japanese culture) to win prizes. The other is to ask what difference haiku makes to the spoken language and more generally our diverse modes of communication. If haiku can be understood to give us a special way of dealing with the big issues then perhaps it can be considered to be a first-rate art. My feeling — and to a small degree experience — is that it can.”

Gallimore went on to say:  “It seems to me that before trying to define haiku in a proscriptive or even descriptive manner it would be helpful to ask why we need rules and definitions in the first place. One answer might be that (as in civil society) rules curtail danger and prevent unwanted mishaps. Haiku, like all arts, engages with the imagination and the nature of that engagement can be a dangerous one, so that we might do well to consider first of all what constitutes appropriate engagement and what not. This might seem all rather abstract but in practice it means nothing more than haiku experts sitting down together and working out what they collectively like. I am struck, for example, by how often the great Japanese haiku (such as the one by Kyoshi discovered by Kawabata Yasunari in Kamakura Station) are poems which communicate a deep tranquillity. So what I am trying to say, perhaps, is that it is the aftertaste which matters (how haiku make us feel and modify our sensibilities) which matters most of all. Technical conformity (above all, the question of 5-7-5) is only important insofar as it creates the final product.”

Kevin Ryan opened a new line of inquiry, haiku as oral art.  “I think that poetry, as a form of writing, is rooted in the art of the orator. When you are on a bleak moor around a peat fire, or in a barn with a hundred others, or sitting at someone’s hearth in midwinter the power of the spoken word – remembered or written, has a force that words on a page fail to emulate (for me). The same may be true of the whispering of a lover or the quiet words of the sage, context is important. For me words/thoughts are movements just as surely as we move our bodies or as surely as our emotions move within us. Movement requires energy and if it is to be meaningful – intention. Is the study of poetry more to do with energy, movement and intention than the clever crafting of words, and form? The physicality of words/thoughts through their expression is key to their quality for me. The quality of the quiet voice inside me that reads (and probably sub-vocalises a poem/haiku at the same time) is paramount in the overall quality of the reading event. Even the ‘soppy”‘ love poem may achieve new heights given the appropriate context and my compassion towards the situation. The ability to form and express thoughts (succinctly / cleverly / wisely / evocatively) on one’s feet or to recite long stories in a poetic form and hold an audience are the roots of poetry. Even down to the voice in one’s own mind – (although not everyone hears their own poetry, some ‘see’ it, some ‘feel’ it, others seem to experience it as fully formed concepts). Haiku, Villanelle, Ghazal etc. – all forms seem to contain the ‘magic’ of empowering words/thoughts in certain ways which can affect us profoundly as human beings. Sometimes this is culturally bound, sometimes temporally – more often than not the forms transcend these barriers for some/many people.”

Denis Garrison replied: “While written poetry certainly dates back millennia in Europe (as well as elsewhere), it is the case that British poetry began, in an era of widespread illiteracy, as an oral art. I won’t review that history; it is available anywhere. The only point I wish to draw from this fact is that, as poetry developed in English, the lyrical qualities of the oral tradition were retained as core values for  written poetry. English-language haiku, I submit, should take account of lyrical values in order to become quality English poetry and not primarily aphoristic or mere prose fragments. When poetry is not written down, that does not reduce the quality of the poetry, only its publication and utility with respect to outreach to readers. Revisions are as common to the poet singer as to the poet writer. The standards of quality for oral poetry are as high (I would argue, higher) as for written poetry, since all the qualities of written poetry are required with the added requirement that the poetry must sound beautiful.  Rhyme, I have read, is avoided in Japanese haiku largely because of  the much greater (than in English) degree to which rhymes are possible. As we all know from the doggerel produced by hobbyist poets in English, excessive rhyming is something to be avoided devoutly. Since rhymes are far less common in English, why should occasional rhyme in English-language haiku not be entirely acceptable, if it does not intrude by patent contrivance?  Again, I have read that Japanese language haiku actually do have a lyrical tradition, using the devices of assonance, alliteration, and onomatopoeia particularly. Why then ought we not to encourage the use of these devices, common also to the English poetic tradition, in English-language haiku? I believe that we should.”

Susumu Takiguchi responded: “Denis has said something which I feel strongly and have said whenever right occasions presented themselves. My weakness has been that I am not a native speaker of English and therefore cannot expound my points convincingly to the native speakers of English. Either for that reason or for other reasons which I am not aware of, my words have so far largely fallen on deaf ears. I am therefore delighted that what I believe rather strongly has come from the lips of a native speaker of English (i.e. Denis).  I am referring to: … English-language haiku, I submit, should take account of lyrical values in order to become quality English poetry and not primarily aphoristic or mere prose fragments. … Since rhymes are far less common in English, why should occasional rhyme in English-language haiku not be entirely acceptable, if it does not intrude by patent contrivance? … Again, I have read that Japanese language haiku actually do have a lyrical tradition, using the devices of assonance, alliteration, and onomatopoeia particularly. Why then ought we not to encourage the use of these devices, common also to the English poetic tradition, in English-language haiku? I believe that we should.

“One of the biggest reasons for this curious phenomenon of not using some of the most valuable poetic tools of English poetry in haiku writing, is the yet even curiouser phenomenon whereby haiku is not regarded as “poetry”. The separation of haiku from English poetic tradition seems to have, on balance, done more harm than good. On the plus side, it has helped to create a special genre (or school) which now occupies the dominating position of haiku outside Japan, with minimalist conventions and sub-conventions. The school is a welcome addition to the long history of haiku and of course should be continued to be developed. However, it must not be the only school in Western haiku. How many really good haiku have been created according to this school? We should continue to strive for creating good haiku according to this school but we should also explore other (fertile) possibilities. I have called it “the liberation of haiku from the domination of the Haiku Moment School”. … Over the coming months, we will be discussing, in WHCacademia and in other lists of the WHC, themes which were started to be challenged at the [London – Oxford Conference of the World Haiku Festival 2000], including the topic Denis has raised, which I think is one of the most pressing issues of haiku in English.”  Susumu Takiguchi

Florence Vilén  posted a series of seventeen propositions on February 21st, which dominated the remaining debate through the end of March.  Her propositions follow.

1. Haiku is one form of poetry. Haiku in Western languages should be judged according to the same standards as other forms of poetry in this language.

2. Most poems in any literary form are of small value but this does not lessen the value of the form itself.

3. One great attraction of the haiku form to a Westerner is the brevity. In Western tradition prolixity is a recurring problem. The haiku should, however, not read like a fragment of prose. It should have its inherent rhythm and poetical character.

4. Another attraction is — or should be — the concrete image. Generalizations and abstractions should be avoided.

5. The sense of nature is important but should not exclude poetry dealing exclusively with human relations and attitudes.

6. Cultural references of any suitable kind should be allowed. There is no reason to limit the choice of subjects to an observation of the writer’s present environment.

7. As for the form, syllable-counting has its drawbacks, particularly in English with its tendency to slur most syllables. It works much better in languages like German or Italian. A totally free verse might be accepted as an exception, provided it is good. A bad verse is neither poetry nor haiku.

8. None of us is a Japanese from the Tokugawa period. We may learn from the classical Japanese haiku but any attempt to copy it will fail. (You may compare with the situation in painting; for several centuries any aspiring painter tried to emulate the works of Raphael, considered the greatest of all artists in paint. None was successful.)

9. When submitting a poem — haiku or any other genre — you claim the attention of the reader. You should make your idea, image, concept as clear as possible. Some people like crossword puzzles, and modernism has turned this into a norm, but it will not work well. A haiku should be accessible to a normally sensitive interested reader. It should not be pared down to meaninglessness. Comments and explanations should be added whenever necessary. (I failed completely to see the point of Virgilo’s often quoted lily poem until I realized that he did not mean a lily. He meant a water lily which is a totally different plant. A lily taken out of the water would have been put in a vase and probably be fading and removed to the garbage bin or compost. A water lily, however, lives in the water. Thus, I don’t think this is a good poem unless it be provided with a title, a comment, a foot note or something similar.)

10. One could speak of a lean style and compare it to a rich style. I suppose the haiku moment school would represent the lean style. Personally, I am impressed by the way an editor like Christopher Herold in his comments in The Heron’s Nest finds depths and beauties in his chosen haiku that most readers would miss otherwise. I should like more help from the haiku itself to do this, though.

11. Your discussion is limited to the English-speaking world. When starting to learn about modern haiku (through Higginson’s Haiku World and particularly through Duhaime’s anthology Haiku sans frontières) I was much more pleased by haiku in other European languages. The best ones had both humour and a clear rhythm. The English often seemed very thin, indeed; pleasant reading but not memorable. I read van den Heuvel’s third edition of Haiku from beginning to end three times last year and I still fail to remember more than a handful of poems there (and these few exceptionally short).

12. As a Swede I should like to draw your attention to the attempt last year of creating a Japanese-Swedish anthology of haiku (and haiku-like poetry), Aprilsnö (meaning Snow in April, in Japanese Shigatsu no yuki), print-on-demand, www.podium.nu. It was produced to celebrate the Japanese state visit to Sweden and contains 100 modern Japanese haiku and 100 Swedish haiku, some in strict style, others not, both in the original and in a translation to the other language. The Japanese editor then rewrote and pared down the Swedish contributions which he found too long, but the literal translation is also included.

13. Some of these poets managed very well to include alliterations and other pleasing effects of language. I certainly think a Western haiku should use all means of poetical eloquence. We cannot possibly imitate the many interesting features of Japanese writing, like that of using kanji with the same radical, so we had better use whatever we do have at hand to make the text musically or rhythmically or phonetically attractive (as D. Garrison has emphasized).

14. Thus, haiku in a Western language is a form of art which should be characterized by brevity, clarity, beauty and sensibility to both Nature and human nature.

15. One sub-division would be the haiku produced only for fun, a legitimate enterprise in itself (I greatly enjoyed a few of the “if haiku were error messages”, as they managed to incorporate allusions to our great philosophical traditions.)

16. Humour, again, is something else. If more serious haiku had a touch of humour they would make better reading, I think. I cannot see a reason in the West to keep senryu as a separate area. Humour and satire could very well be included as haiku sub-areas.

17. Thus art — including all linguistic tricks, and allusion to Western cultural history of all kinds — brevity, accessibility, and optionally closeness to nature.

Following are several members’ responses to Florence Vilén’s proposition 1. (1.Haiku is one form of poetry. Haiku in Western languages should be judged according to the same standards as other forms of poetry in this language.)

Alison Williams:  “I tend to disagree with this for personal reasons.  For me haiku is not just another form of poetry.  I neither read nor write ‘real’ poetry.  It does not interest me.  I have no wish to break into mainstream poetry journals. I have never submitted any work to them.  Why should I, when I don’t read them?  Ah, but neither do most writers of contemporary poetry whose work appears between the pages of ‘real’ poetry journals.  Here is a difference between haiku and poetry, isn’t it?  Writers of haiku are mostly also readers of haiku.  Haiku writers may not be the most gregarious of types (in fact most seem to have reclusive tendencies!) but there is a social element that keeps on coming through, from Basho’s renga parties to the WHC mailing lists. Perhaps this is because haiku — at its best — is not a display of the writer’s brilliance, or a performance, but a two way communication, a sharing of the common ground of experience.  (An aside here — I wonder if the natural form for haiku publishing is the anthology rather than the collection?)  There is also the question — who sets the standards and who judges? In practical terms we can either judge for ourselves and self-publish, or we can demonstrate our confidence in the judgement of editors by submitting work to them for publication and subscribing to their journals.  If you wish to be judged by the standards of poetry then let the editors of poetry journals decide.  If you prefer to be judged by those who know something of haiku, do the same with those journals.  If you find these alternatives unsatisfactory you can always bring out your own publications and try to gather such support as you can for your standards and your judgement.”

Jari Sutinen:  “If we judge haiku with this statement it leads to following. Only thing we end taking from Japanese haiku is its name. We neglect its long traditions. We are not even trying to understand differences between Western and Japanese culture.  In 1930’s an article was published about Japanese poetry by G.J. Ramstedt. In it there was a short passage about Yone Noguchi analysing a “Western poem”. According to Noguchi after taking out all the unnecessary tautology and unmeaningful words from four stanzas there was not enough left for a tanka. See the difference between two approaches.  If we take something from others we could at least try to understand their culture, even a little. What’s the point of judging something with standards of your own culture if that something does not originate from it?”

Paul Conneally:  “The whole notion of ‘working to rules’ needs to be approached with caution. The temptation is to use rules to help us “make” poems — as poets this is dangerous. Letting our experiences and the emotions they evoke in us ‘become’ poems is the poet’s task — this I feel is particularly true for haiku poets.”

Florence Vilén responded: “…  an essential question about Western haiku: why are some poetic devices ruled against?…  Who is making up the rules? Why would a writer have to consider them?  After all, Western haiku has discarded all the essential Japanese rules, for one reason or another. One answer would be: you may write in any way you find poetically satisfactory as long as you do it for yourself. If you want an editor to publish your work, however, you will have to conform to his/her taste. After all, there is no money in publishing haiku. Those who do it will do it for love of the poetical form. Probably they will have very specific ideas of which form they want.

“The discussion in the WHCschools contains links to two articles on haiku; the one by professor Shirane makes a number of well thought-through, well-informed statements lucidly expressed which show that Japanese haiku are not restricted in the modern Western style. They refer to the past, to the cultural traditions, to very much beyond the haiku moment. It is highly enjoyable reading, well worth pondering.

“It has been argued that one should dismiss Western poetics completely when discussing Western haiku. This seems to me to be just impossible. With poetics I then mean everything making for a good poem, including absence of sloppy or worn-down expressions. And of course however much we may, or should, learn from Japanese haiku what we write in English will be something else. Perhaps it was not such a brilliant idea to call the Western form haiku, but now the term is established. So do write as fine poems as you can, using any device you find fitting. If they are haiku will be up to critics and editors to decide. It may not be fair, but that is how the world goes, isn’t it?”  Florence Vilén

SUMMARY:  While this debate did not come to a clear and definitive conclusion with respect to the topic, ‘is Western haiku a second-rate art?’, it did produce some noteworthy insights into reasons why Western haiku might presently be second-rate (a very broad generalization) and into approaches that might lead to improvement of the genre to ‘first-class’ status.

Susumu Takiguchi noted that “One of the biggest reasons for this curious phenomenon of not using some of the most valuable poetic tools of English poetry in haiku writing, is the yet even curiouser phenomenon whereby haiku is not regarded as ‘poetry’. The separation of haiku from English poetic tradition seems to have, on balance, done more harm than good.”

Takiguchi here is responding to Denis Garrison’s propositions in support of bringing the lyrical tradition of English poetry to bear on the writing of haiku in English.  That is, first, that English-language haiku should take account of lyrical values in order to become quality English poetry and not primarily aphoristic or mere prose fragments; second, that, since rhymes are far less common in English, occasional rhyme in English-language haiku should be entirely acceptable, if it does not intrude by patent contrivance; and, third, that, insofar as Japanese language haiku have a lyrical tradition (assonance, alliteration, and onomatopoeia particularly), we should encourage the use of these devices, common also to the English poetic tradition, in English-language haiku… Can someone writing in English build up rhythm and poetical character in three lines? Or are three lines only for a style that devalues sound for imagery?, are provocative.  It leads us to ask: Should a standard form in a particular western language which is that language’s de minimus form for accessibility to the poetic devices of that language become the standard haiku form for that language?  For example, should the twenty-syllable heroic couplet (two lines of iambic pentameter) become the English haiku form?  This is a line of inquiry that could be pursued to advantage by those who wish to assimilate haiku into their respective cultures.

John Carley draws this conclusion: “… I think the greatest mistake we can make in aesthetics, or anything else, is to mistake orthodoxy for “truth.” These insights are consistent with Denis Garrison’s propositions, that mere technical accomplishment is never the ultimate criterion for any art, so slavish adherence to technical guidelines is also a dead end. This is where paradox enters the equation — the need to know all the rules and master them, and then to write despite the rules. Creative innovation will always come into conflict with doctrinaire technical orthodoxies. In the long run, beauty and truth trump the rules.  If this debate reached any consensus, it is that poets writing haiku in western languages cannot be constrained by poetic orthodoxies of the Japanese tradition.”

Clearly, there was a minority opinion that western poets should more closely follow the Japanese tradition.

Jari Sutinen’s posting is eloquent:  “Only thing we end taking from Japanese haiku is its name. We neglect its long traditions. We are not even trying to understand differences between Western and Japanese culture. … If we take something from others we could at least try to understand their culture, even a little. What’s the point of judging something with standards of your own culture if that something does not originate from it?”

The primary schism in western haiku is surely along these lines, separating those who see haiku as intrinsically and necessarily Japanese from those who see haiku as a form to be assimilated into their respective western cultures.  It is hardly surprising that, for each of these two camps, the haiku produced by the other camp seems to be ‘second-rate art.’  To become ‘first-rate’ then, requires different approaches for these two camps. The traditionalists need to find ways to write haiku in their own languages which embody the traditional Japanese poetics to the greatest possible extent.  Those who wish to assimilate haiku into their own cultures have a less well-defined path ahead of them; but clearly it involves discovering the essential nature of haiku which must be retained so that they do not ‘end up taking nothing from Japanese haiku besides its name.’  That essential nature may be haiku’s crystalline brevity and the rigor of condensation to a lyrical minimum, but that has yet to be demonstrated.

~ Denis Garrison 4/20/2001

Read the essay: “Is Western Haiku A Second-rate Art?”


Denis Garrison is a co-moderator on WHCacadamia. His website, TemplarPhoenix, includes a number of journals, including Haiku Cycles, an international haiku-kigo project in collaboration with WHC.

WHCacademia provides members with facilities for serious study and debating of haiku literature, such as “World Haiku Debating chamber”, “World Haiku Kansho Column” (haiku appreciation). New, critical and original views are particularly welcome.

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